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Sport 35: Winter 2007

Sue Orr — Etiquette for a Dinner Party

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Sue Orr

Etiquette for a Dinner Party

The bookkeeper's wife wanted to host a dinner party. It would not be too large an affair—six guests at the most, she suggested—a small gathering to break the monotony of long winter evenings. She put a red circle around the fifth of August on the calendar on the kitchen wall.

She was not fond of the calendar. It featured animals in human poses. The photos had been digitally altered; August had a small Russian Blue cat with its green eyes crossed. But it had been a gift to the bookkeeper from their six-year-old daughter, whom he loved beyond words, so there was no question of removing it.

She had been thinking about the dinner for some time. She had frequently been to luncheons for bookkeepers' wives where invitations to dinner parties were traded. She had always said no (but thank you for asking) as the bookkeeper did not like socialising. It would not be right to accept an invitation in the knowledge that it could not be reciprocated.

So she was very careful about choosing the right moment to talk to the bookkeeper about her need to host a dinner. She waited until one Sunday evening when he appeared relaxed, more receptive than usual to new ideas.

He had just put their daughter to bed, snuggled in with her and whispered her a story; a ritual that both delighted and saddened the wife in its exclusive complicity. He came out of the little girl's bedroom and the wife took a deep breath then asked. He seemed startled, at first, by the proposal, but he came round to it remarkably quickly. That might be nice, he said, face flushed, pushing his lank hair back off his forehead. Those were his exact words.

They had never had a dinner party before. But she felt confident that with more than a month to prepare the occasion could be a success. The first task was to decide on the guest list.

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The bookkeeper said it would be best to limit the party primarily to other bookkeepers—people he worked with. His wife agreed absolutely that her husband should have someone at the table with whom to share a conversation. She had heard how dinner parties could lapse into unpleasant silences, if one or more of the guests felt uncomfortable. She assumed that this could also happen to hosts.

But more than one bookkeeper, she pointed out, could intimidate other guests; especially those not as clever with numbers as her husband. So a compromise was reached. The bookkeeper would invite one colleague sophisticated enough in manner and palate to cope with a dinner party.

Maybe, she suggested, the bookkeeper should choose someone more senior than himself; someone who might look favourably upon promoting him if the dinner went well. He said that he had already thought of this idea, and the wife said she thought as much.

She had her own thoughts on who should come to the dinner party. It had not escaped her attention that their circle of acquaintances was small. In fact it comprised, exclusively, bookkeepers and their wives.

She would never say so out loud, but in the company of these people she felt as though she was trapped in a cage of tall, thin roman numerals; surrounded by people for whom life was black or white, or red if things were not going well.

So, to the dinner party guest list of one bookkeeper and wife, thus far, the wife added a second person: her daughter's schoolteacher.

This schoolteacher loved and nurtured the children in her care. The wife liked the way the teacher laughed with the children when something funny happened. She had tried doing this at home with her daughter—getting a joke ready, practising it, then telling it—but her own giggles always ended up sounding like the canned glee of a television show. Maybe it was because the teacher was so young— twenty, compared to her own forty-three years—and genuinely amused by the same things that could make a child choke on big deep belly laughs.

And hadn't she—the teacher—said to her one day that she would like to discuss her daughter sometime, when she had a minute to spare? So yes, the schoolteacher (and her husband, if she had one) would be invited to dinner.

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The wife asked her the very next day at school, and the teacher said she and her husband, who was a policeman, would be delighted to accept.

A policeman! thought the wife. The type to respect order; right and wrong. The ideal dinner company for a bookkeeper. Things were working out well.

That left just two chairs around the big, buffed mahogany dinner table to fill.

The wife thought carefully about this during the following week. She knew very few people well enough to describe them as friends. Certainly not well enough to casually drop into the conversation Oh and by the way would you and your husband like to come over for a meal sometime? Or We're having a few people round on the fifth of August, how about you join us? Although she was aware that was how many dinner parties came about.

In the end though, there was no decision to make. Much to the wife's amazement and pleasure, a very suitable person presented herself as an obvious dinner party guest.

The wife had an appointment with her doctor. The complaint was not a serious one; in fact she considered it embarrassingly trivial. She had, for no good reason at all, started crying. Just like that. One minute shopping, the next sobbing. She thought it was probably allergy-related, and that a pill would fix it.

It surprised her when the doctor had different ideas. It could be stress, or even depression, the kindly GP said. Oh no, it can't be that, replied the wife. I don't get depressed.

How is your family? asked the doctor. Your little girl? And at that, the wife cried.

Would you like me to see her sometime? said the doctor, watching with keen eyes that knew what to look for. Oh yes. In fact, why don't you and your husband come for dinner on August the fifth? the wife asked. The doctor replied that she would gladly come to dinner, and her husband, the school principal, would too.

How perfect said the wife. Company for the schoolteacher.

Deciding on a menu was not as difficult as the wife imagined it might be. She purchased several respected cookbooks and contemplated meal page 139combinations. She even remembered that some people had dietary restrictions, so she rang each guest to check whether they might be vegetarians, vegans, averse to seafood, allergic to peanuts, almonds or kiwifruit.

She told the bookkeeper to check these things with the guest from his firm, but the bookkeeper said he was far too busy with end of financial year accounts, and it would be best if the wife dealt with this dinner party business.

She sensed he was no longer interested in the occasion—whenever she mentioned it he would sigh in an accusing way and change the subject. The wife was pleased, therefore, that she had already issued the invitations. It would be most incorrect of them to cancel, now that other people had reserved the date in their diaries.

Dinner arrangements continued through the month of July while the bookkeeper added, subtracted and adjusted amortisation for goodwill. Each night he would take one break to eat a quick meal and put their daughter to bed. Together he and child would stand in front of the heavy oak bookcase and the daughter would choose the book her father would read to her. The wife saw that the books were becoming longer, more complicated in plot and language. Her daughter was evidently a gifted listener, she thought proudly. That was, perhaps, what the schoolteacher wanted to discuss with her at the dinner party.

As the fifth of August drew near, the bookkeeper's piles of documents grew, taking over the house entirely. The wife walked from room to room, staring in dismay at the total intrusion of other people's fiscal positions in their home. Columns of black and red numbers swamped every horizontal surface. She did not dare move anything; she knew from previous attempts to tidy up that this was not a sensible thing to do. One person's profit could become another's burden, with disastrous outcomes for all.

The wife saw that the bookkeeper was indeed under a great deal of pressure. So, one night, she offered to read to their daughter at bedtime.

Immediately she saw what a serious miscalculation she had made. The bookkeeper was leading their daughter by the hand into her bedroom with Financial Accounting: A Decision Making Approach page 140by Ling, Lembke and Smith under his arm. He turned to her, his face ruby red in anger and perspiration oozing out of his high forehead. The veins on his neck bulged out so far she could see tiny stress knots pulsing away.

No, he said, almost raising his voice. This is just for us. Me and her.

The guests were due to arrive at six thirty, but the wife knew it was considered polite to be a little early. The trouble was, she was not sure how early a little early was. She had been to the library to research dinner party etiquette, but this had not been particularly useful—the more books she read, the greater number of appropriate arrival times she found. So she set the table at four o'clock.

The meal—a flavoursome beef casserole—was cooked and warm in the oven. Rice had been rinsed and was ready to steam. Entrées of little salmon mousses, and dessert—Florida Key Lime pie and cream— were in the fridge. Dinner would be served at seven; she expected the evening to draw to a close with dessert and coffee at about nine. Assuming, of course, that schedules were followed.

A seating plan and running order for the evening was on the kitchen bench, next to stacks of baguettes and dinner rolls bought that morning from an artisan bakery in town. She had nibbled on one of these rolls whilst preparing dinner, and could not see what all the fuss was about. The crust was so hard her gums had bled. Perhaps that was why French women were so thin, she thought. She checked the sheet of paper again, to ensure everything was in order.

At one end of the table would be the bookkeeper, at the other end herself. According to one theory, this would ensure that the two hosts would between them keep the bonhomie of the evening alive. The wife was not sure whether such theory would apply in the case of her and the bookkeeper, but at least the guests would see that she had made the effort.

This meant, of course, that she was unable to follow the accepted protocol of alternating males and females around the table, but she could not fathom how to satisfy the two rules when one had six dinner guests. Finally, she deemed it most important to keep a direct line of sight on the bookkeeper during the meal.

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So. Between them would sit (to her right) the bookkeeper's senior, the schoolteacher and the principal. Then, to the right of the bookkeeper: the senior's wife, the doctor and, finally, right back to complete the circle, the policeman.

The wife drifted through the dining room again and again, stopping now and then to adjust a knife, wipe a spot off the table with the corner of her apron. Earlier she had felt nervous and exhausted, drained of the effervescence required to be a good hostess. But now she felt entirely differently about things; as though this lovely evening belonged to someone else and she was a mere observer of a social occasion, with all its rules and customs. According to one of the books—it might have been Margaret the Duchess of Argyll: My Dinner Party—a successful dinner party was ninety per cent dependent on good preparation. The wife was satisfied she had come close to, if not exceeded, this threshold of social adequacy.

The guests arrived together, as it turned out, and being small-town people, they all knew each other. The wife was overwhelmed when they presented her with small gifts. How kind! she said, and put the flowers and chocolates on the small wooden table that had been polished for that purpose. The guests all kissed her on the cheek; the women barely brushing her skin so as not to leave lipstick marks. The bookkeeper finished some final paperwork for the evening, and joined them for introductions.

The conversation flowed easily around the big round table. The wife functioned superbly, clearing dirty dishes as though by magic, replacing them with yet another delectable offering. The guests offered to help but no! she would exclaim, honestly, it's no trouble at all, everything is under control.

The wife watched the bookkeeper for uncomfortable lapses in conversation, but saw that he was surprisingly adept at the art of dinner party hosting. In fact, she found the man at the other end of the table—the bookkeeper she had been married to for twenty years—to be an entirely different person. He was a charming host, filling wine glasses, engaging in small talk on matters of curriculum (to his left) and health (to his right). The wife felt hungry for this personality reserved for others. What a nice man he is when he needs to be, she thought.

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At eight thirty, their daughter flew into the dining room, a whirl-wind princess showing off her new dressing gown. Look at it! she sang, look! it has seagulls on it! The guests were delighted at the little girl's loveliness and applauded her around, around, until she tumbled to the ground in a theatrical fall. Then she said good night to the guests, one by one, and when the teacher asked for a special cuddle, the little girl shuffled shyly around the table, brown hair hanging over her eyes, and wrapped her arms around her. The bookkeeper excused himself to put her to bed.

One of the library books—Emily Post's Etiquette 16th Edition possibly—had suggested Victorian parlour games as an appropriately light-hearted way to end a dinner party. The wife had prepared a list of such games and added it to her instructions on the kitchen bench. As she carried in a tray of coffee cups and chocolates, she made her announcement. Who remembers how to play Chinese Whispers?

The guests exclaimed their surprise at such quaintness oh! how lovely! then delight as they moved in close around the table to close the gap left by the bookkeeper.

Should we wait for him to return? asked the doctor. Oh no, replied the wife. He will be some time yet. Let's get started.

I will begin, she said.

She leaned forward, her eyes shining bright, and whispered into the ear of the bookkeeper's senior.

The man did a terrible thing to the child. Pass it on.

The bookkeeper's senior looked at the hostess, the brain inside his big O-shaped head unable to comprehend what he had heard. Excuse me? he said, with smile that looked as though it might drip off his chin at any moment.

Come now, the wife replied, don't tell me you don't know the rules of this game.

Then the senior nodded wisely, and leaned into the shoulder of the young schoolteacher.

The man did a terrible thing to the child. Pass it on.

The guests, one after another, frowned and glanced at the wife as they listened to the strange little sentence. And then, oh yes, Chinese Whispers! the relief at having misheard sent smiles skimming across page 143their faces like stones across water. The message made its way slowly around the table.

Finally, it was the turn of the doctor to whisper into the ear of the policeman. The policeman leaned forward in his chair to listen, as a constable on the beat might bend down to hear the words of a small child lost, looking for help.

But before the doctor had a chance to pass the message on, the bookkeeper's senior leapt to his feet. Oh my Lord! he said. Is that the time already? I'm so sorry to cut this lovely evening short, but we must be off! And the rest of the guests looked at their watches too, and expressed surprise at the late hour.

They gathered their coats and jackets and scarves and gloves and gathered to kiss the wife on the cheek. It had been, the doctor said, a fabulous dinner party, and could the wife please pass on her thanks to the bookkeeper, who was obviously having trouble getting the little girl to sleep. And next time the bookkeeper and the wife had to come to her home for dinner.

The wife said that would be very nice—a lovely idea—but it would depend very much on whether the annual accounts had been dealt with, and whether they could find a suitable babysitter. She showed them to the door and bade them all a safe trip home and a good night's sleep.